PHILADELPHIA – The Cubs dressed quietly inside the visiting clubhouse late Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. No loud rap music blasting or shaving cream smeared all over the carpet.
It’s a long shot, but the Cubs will get their chance to win the National League Central, with 10 of their final 20 games against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The computers projected a playoff spot as a lock – 99.8 percent on Baseball Prospectus and 99.9 percent on FanGraphs – and even the most cynical Cubs fan has to like those odds.
But the Cubs wasted an opportunity to gain even more ground here, absorbing a 7-5 walk-off loss to the Philadelphia Phillies when pinch-hitter Cody Asche hammered Hector Rondon’s 95-mph fastball off the right-field foul pole for a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning.
“We’re human,” Rondon said. “I try to be the same every time I come into pitch. I have my plan and I think that is the reason I have (good) moments. But some days I don’t have that good luck. They hit it.”
Is Rondon ready for October? He has been so quietly efficient – and done the job without any of the personality quirks you usually see from closers – that it’s easy to overlook how dominant he’s been this year.
Rondon had allowed just two earned runs in his previous 45 games and given up only three homers to the first 252 batters he faced this season. That still doesn’t mean the Cubs have a bullpen built for the playoffs or the brute force to make it a six- or seven-inning game the way the Kansas City Royals did last year.
Looking at an uncertain weather forecast, which ultimately led to a 50-minute rain delay, the Cubs decided to flip-flop, moving Dan Haren’s start back to Sunday afternoon and making Saturday their bullpen night against the worst team in baseball.
Combined, the Cubs got six scoreless innings from Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill before Justin Grimm cracked with two outs in the seventh. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo made the fielding error that opened the door for five unearned runs. Lefty Zac Rosscup gave up the big hit when Cesar Hernandez lined a three-run double into left-center field.
“I got to do a better job there – I messed up,” Rizzo said. “I maybe took the groundball for granted. It’s a slow chopper. Maybe tried to rush a little bit. It was kind of in an awkward area. But you got to move on.”
The Cubs responded with four runs in the eighth inning to tie the game before Kris Bryant sprinted from third base on a groundball and got tagged out at home plate, knocking over Phillies catcher Erik Kratz and forcing a replay review of the home-plate collision rule.
“I don’t want to get into that, because I get in trouble every time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But if that’s not blocking the plate, I don’t know what is.”
[NBC SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey here]
The Cardinals are creating a lane in the division, losing a suspended game plus another game to the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, making it eight losses in the last 10 games for the best team in baseball.
The Cubs trail the Cardinals by 5.5 games and will get their archrivals next weekend in what should be a huge three-game series at Wrigley Field.
The next stop on this three-city road trip is Pittsburgh, where the Cubs will play the Pirates four times in three days beginning Tuesday afternoon at PNC Park. The Pirates have narrowed the deficit to 2.5 games in the Central and hold a three-game lead over the Cubs in the wild-card race.
“You never know,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “That’s the thing. You never know how many games other teams can lose. You never know how many we can win. So we’re just trying to come to the ballpark every day and win. That’s it. Let the other teams take care of their business.
“We just want to get the momentum (and) go into October with that. Obviously, we’d love to get the wild-card game at home. We’d love to catch the Cardinals. But even if we play on the road in that game, it’s not going to matter to us.”